Japan ready to restart Reactors: Debunking ‘Fukushima’ and the rare earths Potential
Two years have passed since the earthquake and tsunami that have devastated Japan, the most violent ever recorded in Japan. Although some 20,000 people were killed by the resulting crashes, explosions, fires and gas leaks, whenever the world remembers this major disaster, the media and the public focus on the radiological hazard posed by nuclear power plants, leaving objectivity and clarity to be desired. Upon closer inspection, the real wonder is the high level of safety that was demonstrated by Japan’s reactors when considering the most relevant technical aspects of the nuclear accident and its consequences. Not surprisingly, the new Japanese government has challenged the nuclear ‘pessimism’, announcing that it will begin to gradually increase nuclear power starting next fall. Of the country’s fifty nuclear reactors, only two have remained operational since the Fukushima meltdown in March 2011.
Last week, Japan’s Minister of Industry, Toshimitsu Motegi, said that by mid July, the Nuclear Regulation Authority, Japan’s supervisory authority for the sector, will introduce revised security requirements, paving the way toward a rekindling of the nuclear grid if the tests are successful. The announcement is significant because it carries much significance, given that it is the first time that a Japanese cabinet minister has defined an actual timetable for the nuclear energy plants in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. Only two reactors are operational, having been restarted last summer to avoid the risk of blackouts in the rich region of Kansai.
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As dramatic as was the accident at the Fukushima reactor – one off the largest in the world in terms of installed nuclear power and one of the oldest, having been installed in the early 1970’s – the reactor actually survived the massive earthquake. The automatic shut-off mechanism worked well and structural failure was limited. The problem, in fact, was the tsunami itself, which knocked out the electricity needed to power the emergency cooling system. Indeed, the main problem at the Fukushima reactor was that nobody had thought about an emergency power supply mechanism – something that in the future might even be provided by their own solar panels. About an hour after the earthquake, in fact, the tsunami wave damaged the cooling system’s link to the power supply. The cooling systems of the reactors were fed with batteries for another eight hours until they failed.
Modern battery technology can also be used to address this problem, especially thanks to new developments in vanadium batteries, which have unprecedented levels of energy storage. Because of the disastrous situation of the hours immediately following the tsunami and a lack of preparation to manage an event of that magnitude, it was not possible to re-link the power supply to the reactor cooling system from outside. Cooling was eventually restored thanks to diesel generators that injected sea water into the reactors, slowly bringing the situation under control. The lack of cooling of the reactors and fuel storage pools had meanwhile caused damage to the fuel itself with consequent emission of hydrogen, which accumulated in the highest part of the buildings that enclose the reactors, causing some explosions. The hydrogen discharges were joined by the release of radioactive gases and vapors coming from the damaged fuel.
The immediate radiological consequences of the accident at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima were two casualties and scores of injured due to the above noted explosions. However, the anti-nuclear hype that followed failed to mention the fact that the disaster prevention measures worked very well. Understandably, the public is concerned by the health consequences in the long term from nuclear accidents. From the radiological point of view, some of the reactor employees were contaminated and there was a significant release of some volatile radioactive substances in the form of compounds of iodine and cesium, through the air vent from the containers. However, inspectors noted that the total radioactivity released outside the reactor was less than a tenth of that released at the 1986 Chernobyl reactor in the then Soviet Union.
The World Health Organization recently confirmed that, thanks to the measures taken, even in the most exposed radioactive areas the risk level to human health is low. Nevertheless, and perhaps predictably, Fukushima raised alarm bells against nuclear power worldwide, even though the accident, the deaths and problems had very little to do with nuclear power. In spite of the shrill arguments and anti-nuclear lobbyism, in the European Union nuclear reactors account for more than a quarter of the electricity consumption and in some countries such as France, the atom is the main power source for the electrical system. In the world there are currently 437 nuclear units connected to the grid and a further 68 are under construction. China, alone, plans to build 100 new ones over the next decade. It is evident that phasing-out of nuclear energy is hardly feasible.
Power companies and manufacturers are therefore looking for alliances with political parties to meet the renewed demands for energy with safety and sustainability. Apart from the new technological developments in reactor design, from pebble bed to the addition of beryllium, there should be more research on safety mechanisms in nuclear installations and emergency management along with more sophisticated filtration systems to monitor and block radioactive gases. Rare earths and the new ‘wave’ of critical minerals can have a big role to play in enabling nuclear technology and addressing the public’s justified demand for safety. Rare earth magnetic filters could be developed to manage the escape of noxious gases. Rare earths, graphite and vanadium have made it possible to push battery technology beyond anything imagined; they can generate more power and also store it for exponentially longer periods. Apart from more reliable batteries to power cooling mechanisms, there are already solar absorption coolers, which generate cool air from solar energy. The common factor is that all these technologies require rare earths.